Ahh, Halloween. A time for ghouls and goblins, candy and costumes. For some, it’s a time of year that allows for the guiltless exploration of the darker side of humanity with movies like “Halloween” or “Friday the 13th.” For others, it’s a time to celebrate with decorations of cobwebs, cute crafts involving striped witchy stockings and cheese cloth. Others flat out refuse to celebrate, believing that Halloween goes against the very fabric of their religious beliefs and natures.
The time frame of our currently celebrated holiday coincides with two very important holidays dating back centuries: the Catholic holidays of All Hallows Eve and All Saints Day, and the Gaelic Autumn solstice of Samhain.
It is important to note that although we currently celebrate Halloween, Halloween and Samhain are far from linked. While it could be understood that some may associate the holiday to Satan, it is important to relay the devil is not a part of any Pagan religion. Halloween as we celebrate commercially now, is centered more on the Catholic holiday of All Hallows Eve.
A peak behind Halloween’s mask:
“All Hallows Eve” or “All Hallows Mass” was the Catholic Church’s way of harmonizing their ways with those of the Pagans in the 8th Century. It is believed that in order to encourage Pagans to adopt Christianity, the Church did everything they could to mirror their holidays to those of the Pagans. This encouraged a blending and acceptance of their savior without having to force acceptance by way of bloodshed.
The Church termed November 1st as a day to celebrate all Saint’s that did not already have a specific day assigned to them. A mass was held at midnight for all those the Church considered “Hallowed,” hence the term “All Hallows Eve.” This was later shortened to the term “Halloween.”
Keeping the spirit of alignment alive, All Hallows Eve/All Saints Day corresponds directly with the Celtic/Gaelic New Year of Samhain (pronounced sow-en). It was celebrated from sunset on Oct 31st to sunset on November 1st. The Celts felt as if any mark of definitive halves held great power. Samhain marked the definitive halving between summer’s lighter parts of the year with winter’s darker parts of the year.
Samhain also definitively marked the season of harvest, where humanity would reap the benefits of what they’d sown during their long, light-filled days in preparation for the darkness of winter’s reflectiveness. There was much symbolism in this practice. Celts and Pagans believed winter to be a time of rumination, renewal, and rebirth. Winter was considered a long sleep – much like the infant growing and evolving within the womb of a woman, they too believed the Earth was cycling its children through a period of stillness on their way to a re-birth in the spring.
On Samhain, huge bonfires were lit and rituals performed. These bonfires were lit in honor of the waning light of the sun. They believed that because the days grew shorter and the suns light grew weaker, their bonfires assisted the sun on its last journey across the sky before going dormant. In these fires, the Celts would make offerings of their harvest and dead animal bones to please their gods and protect them during the winter darkness. As their hearth fires slowly went out during the celebration, the Celts would utilize the light of the Samhain bonfire to relight their hearths. They would keep these fires burning for at least three days to encourage the God’s favoring them and their houses during the longer winter months. The darkness of winter, and the light of the bonfire directly link to our current use of black and orange as Halloween’s festive colors.
“At Samhain, time lost all meaning and the past, present, and future were one. The dead, and the denizens of the Other World, walked among the living. It was a time of fairies, ghosts, demons, and witches. Winter itself was the Season of Ghosts, and Samhain is the night of their release from the Underworld. Many people lit bonfires to keep the evil spirits at bay.” ~ Susan Morgan Black ~
Samhain was a day when the Celts believed the veil between themselves and both the souls of their dearly departed ancestors and other specters from the Underworld was thinnest. Because they believed the veil between the dead and living was at its thinnest, they believed spiteful spirits would come out to frolic. These people’s also believed very deeply in Witch’s, faeries, and spirits. The most powerful of all witches was said to originate in Ireland with the name of Morrigan. She was also known as Morgan le Fay, as told in the stories of Merlin the Wizard. Samhain was the day commoners would allow Morigan to roam free and stay out of her way. In another blatant Christian-Pagan emulation, Morrigan is known as the one and only triple goddess, encompassing the maiden, mother, and crone aspect in a single entity – not unlike the father, son, and Holy Spirit of Christian religion.
Celts believed witches used the day of Samhain to communicate with persons from the Underworld, casting spells and prophesizing. They would commune with the dead, and would ride on ravens and black cats- or transform into the animal itself. These two symbols are often used at present time to represent Halloween, and the superstition that black cats are “unlucky” most likely started with the festivals of Samhain. Out of respect – and fear – villagers would stay within their dwellings and left the witches to their merriment and casting.
With the veil between the living and the dead being at its thinnest, it is believed vibrant, young family members, out of empathy and respect, would dress in costume to hide the appearance of their vivacious lives from their ancestors in order to keep them from being envious. Other’s state that people dressed up due to their belief the malevolent spirits from the Underworld would snatch them up and take them to their dark world. Live persons would dress in costume to trick them into believing they too were deceased spirits.
These costumed persons would also leave out offerings from their harvest as a treat, carving out gourds, turnips, or other root vegetables, placing within them a candle, offering the spirits lights to guide them to these offerings. If the spirits found the offering, it redirected their attention from those alive and well within the dwelling, keeping them safe from being taken to the Underworld. You trick with a disguise, and you treat as a diversion. This example may have originated the coinage “Trick or Treating.”
One other thought centered on trick or treating includes All Souls day. On this day, less fortunate people traveled door-to-door for food handouts. Those more fortunate would provide “soul cakes.” If the beggar swore to offer a prayer for the ancestors of the provider, they would be granted a cake. There is conjecture around whether this was another clever ploy by the Church to replace the gifts left for spirits with cakes given out to the living.
I hope you have enjoyed this very short, and not at all entirely inclusive, history of Halloween. I dare you to do some digging of your own into the truth behind all our holidays!